Author: James Mesiti
In February 2016, LAWG and the Washington Office on Latin America organized a visit by a delegation of Colombian human rights defenders as they shared their stories and experiences with congressional staff, members of the State Department, and the greater Washington D.C. community. The visitors — Luz Elena Galeano Laverde, Francia Elena Márquez Mina, Fabián Laverde, and William Rivas — were all winners of the 2015 National Prize for the Defense of Human Rights in Colombia awarded by the Swedish development and humanitarian organization, Diakonia.
Luz Elena Galeano Laverde represents the Women Walking for Truth (Las Mujeres Caminando por la Verdad) which won the prize for Collective Process of the Year. Women Walking for Truth emerged after Operation Orion in 2002, during which civilians from Comuna 13 in Medellín were disappeared, allegedly by Colombian security forces and paramilitary groups. The members of the Women Walking for Truth, including Luz Elena whose husband was disappeared in 2008, joined together to find their missing loved ones. These women fight for the establishment of truth, justice, and reparations for victims and have proposed mechanisms for restorative justice as a way to seek peace. Read our full feature of Luz Elena at lawg.org/LuzElena
Francia Elena Márquez Mina was named Defender of the Year. Francia is an Afro-Colombian leader and human rights defender in Yolombó village in the northern Cauca region of Colombia. Francia defends the ethnic, environmental, and territorial rights of Afro-Colombian communities and has represented the community of La Toma in the Súarez municipality. Francia was among a group of victims invited to Havana to participate in the peace process, though Francia says she does not see herself as a victim, nor does she see herself as an individual, but rather as part of her community. Francia is the spokeswoman for the Mobilization of Women for Care for Life and Ancestral Territories. Francia was recently attacked by ESMAD police officers while leading a peaceful protest in Cauca and has been receiving escalating death threats allegedly from “BACRIM” or paramilitary-style groups. Read our full feature of Francia at lawg.org/Francia
During a public discussion co-hosted by LAWGEF and WOLA on February 18, 2016 at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), Luz Elena and Francia spoke about the challenges they and fellow advocates face, the impacts of the conflict on their communities, and the role of human rights defenders in building sustainable peace in Colombia. These excerpts of their powerful remarks reveal the strong commitment of Colombian civil society and victims groups to constructing a peace agreement that includes the proposals of the communities most affected by the conflict, as well as implementing peace with attention to victims, truth, and justice:
“I believe if the voices of the victims are not heard we will not have a solid peace process—mainly because of the importance of clarifying or finding the truth. If we cannot learn what happened, by whom, and why, we would be in the dark. I do not think it would be fair because it was the government who acted against us…We do not need half of the truth. We need the whole truth about what happened in our neighborhood and in our city.” – Luz Elena Laverde
“We are raising our voices to say that we are defenders of life, of our territories, and defenders of the environment. And we as women, in a very specific way, have come into this life, have brought our children into this life, and we will continue to struggle to bring peace and liberty for our people. We do not want to continue [to live] in a world of violence and of blood [which is what] historically we have lived in… We know what war means. We know what it means to have helicopters bombing our lands where we can’t sleep all night with the fear that perhaps one of those bombs will fall on one of our homes. We want a peace process but we do not want a peace process that is just a development model. We want one that is for Colombian society and that is for the world…We want the reality to be that we have a lasting world peace. That our children in the future will not have to flee like we have had to flee in our lives.” – Francia Elena Márquez Mina
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of The Advocate, LAWG’s biannual newsletter. Download a PDF of the issue here.